Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Help and Hope

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God. (Psalm 146.3-5)


While reviewing today’s readings, I keep going back to Psalm 146.3-5. Perhaps still dazed by the weekend’s Pride festivities, I can’t seem to read the passage without flashing on The Wizard of Oz. From the moment we meet Dorothy Gale, she’s on the run and clueless, ceaselessly wishing to be where she’s not. While in Kansas, she dreams of somewhere over the rainbow. When a twister plops her there, she longs for home. She really doesn’t do much except follow advice from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Am I alone in finding it weird the film throws all its energy behind Dorothy’s fear and confusion? Beyond the biggest number (“Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead”)—which gets cut short by another, very much alive witch—every song in the movie tilts on “ifs” and “why’s.”

The moviemakers smooth this over with a resolution that anticipates more recently peddled Hollywood pabulum about love of self and locating one’s “inner child.” Unlike the novel, which paints the adventure as literal experience, the film absolves Dorothy of imprudent trust in unreliable people and ideas by framing her escapade as a dream. There’s no need for her to learn why it’s vital to differentiate sound guidance from idle conjecture because the fears and confusion brought on by poor discernment are imaginary. Her questions are pointless, too, as she awakens to find she should have known better than to ask. “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again,” she says, “I won’t look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.” Sure, we puddle up at “There’s no place like home.” Yet, had we first seen The Wizard of Oz with more life experience under our belts, we just as easily might conclude, “No wonder she couldn’t think clearly. She’s been comatose the whole time!”

Disproportionate Trust

Psalm 146.3-5 acknowledges what The Wizard of Oz works overtime to ignore: human wisdom and intentions can’t be counted on. “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help,” it says. “When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” (v3-4) That’s not to say we automatically mistrust what we’re advised to believe and do, or doubt the motives of those who care for us. The psalmist simply reminds us not everything we’re told and every relationship we pursue offers lasting benefit. It goes without saying some of both prove utterly useless in the long run. We stumble on worthless counsel that sends us every which way but the right one. We meet people who mask selfishness in pretenses of compassion and concern. But I’m prone to think these cases are less common than mistakes we make by placing disproportionate trust in shortsighted advice and idle promises.

Not every nugget of wisdom delivered by sincere people rings with timeless truth. Not every soul that brightens our day fills our lives with enduring sunshine. Some goodness that passes our way is just that—passing. Since it’s born of transient human desire to assist and assure, its value fades and eventually expires. And there’s no surer way for passing goodness to go bad than clinging to it after it loses relevance to our lives and times. That’s when human help creates problems and mortal hope sinks in despair. If only we discerned in these unhappy moments what the psalmist recognized ages ago, we’d see not letting go finite beliefs and expectations is the primary contributor to feeling let down by those who espouse them. Disproportionate trust asks too much of mortal propositions and promises. The psalmist sagely urges us to remember their modest origins make them unsuitable for immodest faith.

Divine Goodness

If we can’t trust all we’re told to believe and hope for, how do we know what to trust? Wouldn’t it be smarter to trust nothing and no one, since everything we’re told is susceptible to human interference? Both questions would have merit were it not for this: God’s Word is eternally true and forever trustworthy. It stands as our sole means of understanding what God expects from us and desires for us. We gauge human advice and assurance against wisdom and promises found in Scripture. When mortal goodness falls short of standards put forth in God’s Word, we accept it gratefully without demanding more than it can realistically offer. On the other hand, God often imparts sound truth and promises through human channels. Knowing God’s Word is how we recognize them when we see and hear them. And whether we uncover God’s truth and promises through prayerful study and meditation or they’re revealed in another’s words and deeds, our spirits witness lasting wisdom and confidence they provide.

Divine goodness has no expiration date. It’s free of annoying “ifs” and “why’s” that come from finding answers don’t lurk in our own backyards. While God’s answers aren’t always explicitly clear or easily explained, they announce themselves in help and hope that transcend time and circumstance. “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God,” the psalmist declares. (v5) Placing unlimited faith in help we find in God’s Word and hope in God’s infinite wisdom and foresight not only makes us happy. It keeps us happy by mitigating unhappy moments when disproportionate trust in human reasoning and reliability lets us down.

It’s essential we remember help and hope come in two varieties: human and divine. The former is finite and subject to loss of relevance in changing times. The latter is infinite, ever present, and always trustworthy.

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